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Why NOT to aim at becoming successful.

We are bombarded throughout our society by the need to become successful. On LinkedIn, we read about the latest career achievement of an old colleague. We hear stories from friends about their adventurous travels in South-East Asia. Sharply-edited advertising videos give us the feeling that purchasing the latest iPhone will make us part of the ‘in-crowd’. Attaining wealth, prosperity or fame; the conventional definition of success, is portrayed as the primary thing we should strive for in life.

I used to focus on this and be a heavy watcher of inspirational videos that direct people to become successful. However, since founding Extraordinary Life, I gained a new perspective. I realised that aiming for success in its conventional form is a misguided way to live our lives. We are quite literally sold a lie by society.

Due to the psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill, we remain at a relatively stable level of happiness, despite becoming more ‘successful’. As we make more money and move up the social hierarchy, expectations and desires rise in tandem, producing no permanent gain in happiness.

I can understand if the science hasn’t convinced you. Maybe you want to hear about success from a ‘successful person’, or wait to see for yourself. Well putting aside the research and the risk you could waste your entire working life striving for something that doesn’t satisfy you, there is another reason you should trust me – I’ve coached these kinds of people.

I have a rough idea of how much money they have in their bank account, I know how high they are on the corporate ladder, and I can tell you; they’re no happier than a “normal” educated middle-class person is. They experience similar challenges to us. They struggle with their relationships, have difficulty keeping a work-life balance and question the impact of their work.

A mark of many successful people is that despite their successes, they do not think they are successful. There’s always someone with a more prestigious job title than you, who dines at fancier restaurants, or who has seen more of the world. This social comparison acts as a perpetual treadmill that keeps people running forward, needing more and more to satisfy themselves, hungry to get ahead of the new benchmark for success. This continuous hunger to get and achieve more eventually only leads to dissatisfaction.

Moreover, in our post-materialistic world, we are now supposed to ‘have it all’. You need to work hard but keep a work-life balance. You need to travel the world but have a low carbon footprint. You need an exciting, spontaneous love-life but build a stable family structure. These contradictions make it impossible to achieve success as defined by society.

Some may argue that it is human instinct always to be dissatisfied and want more. Hoarding possessions like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But do you want just to run around controlled by your primitive urges, or take control over your life and create your future?

Let’s step off the treadmill and pause for a moment.

Take some time to appreciate everything you have. Decide to be content with the home you live in, the relationship you have and your unique talents. While I still find it challenging to stand still, the last two years, I have been thinking regularly for myself about what success is for me. I think about what I’m genuinely proud of, how much I’m learning, the people in my life I have impacted. Defining success for myself, rather than comparing to others, puts me in control. My ‘success’ is to live a fulfilling life.

Now, as I like to do with all my blogs, let’s take a small action. One ritual that has greatly benefited me in the past: start a daily gratitude journal.

Each morning for the next three days, write down three things you are grateful for. It can be something small in your physical environment, like the fact it’s a sunny day (sorry for the readers in the UK/Netherlands). Or something conceptual, like the love you feel for your partner. Perhaps the great colleagues you have at the office. Regularly focusing your mind on what you’re grateful for will train you to feel more thankful for everything you possess and thus gain a greater sense of fulfilment. It will also help you to become aware of what you value and start defining success for yourself.

Drop a comment below to let me know how this goes! Perhaps you found it so beneficial that you carried on for the rest of the week and want to integrate it entirely in your life? Or maybe you already practice a gratitude ritual to share that others can benefit from?

Finally, all of this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for more in your life – growth is a fundamental human need too, and something I aim for every day. However, to realise fulfilment in one’s life, that growth must be balanced by gratefulness.


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